Jewesbury & O'Beirn

Joanne Savage is less than impressed on a stroll through Belfast Exposed

Have you ever noticed just how many pieces of discarded chewing gum there are decorating the pavement on parts of the New Lodge Road? I hadn’t, and would have continued to live in happy ignorance, until confronted by Daniel Jewesbury’s short film NLR, part of a new exhibition making ‘microgeographical enquiries’ about north Belfast.

Jewesbury and Aisling O’Beirn are broadly looking at the perceived sterility of the area, its wash of greys, tarmac, uninspiring buildings, graffiti down alleyways, painted railings, murals, the odd pigeon strolling near the kerb. They view the cityscape with a jaded, seemingly despairing optic – all of it very old news in this reviewer’s opinion.

O’Beirn has a flash animation and list of ‘Improbable Landmarks’ suggesting unlikely attractions for visitors including motorway lanes; the M2 between Belfast and Antrim; gardens demarked by unclad posts; supporting steel balustrades; 34 windows; a B&Q Warehouse; a clear sky; pony-tailed women; Muller yogurt; Tigers Bay.

Near this ironic catalogue of beauty spots is a sculpture that looks like an architect’s mock-up of a plan for, say, a new park. A kind of grey styrofoam is stapled into an odd shape, little miniature plastic trees dotted about and a crude plant pot smack bang in the middle of the depressed area. A nearby video pans over old black and white images of car parks, grids of buildings, pavement, forgettable urban snapshots.

NLR takes a walk down the New Lodge Road, catching the passersby; the boy playing with a ball in his school uniform near a mural of the Hunger Strikers; the girl walking purposefully with her school bag; the car of 20-something men waving briefly at the camera. It zooms in on the chewing-gum-littered pavement, clocks the lampposts and the registration numbers of a few parked cars, moves slowing towards the corner, gets incrementally closer to what first appears to be a piece of string alone on the gravel – but wait – it’s actually a piece of wire.

The male and female voiceovers add to the prevailing sense of dislocation and ennui. The odd phrase resonates: 'You’re part of it. You persist in the unchangingness of this place.' And, more vaguely: 'Beneath these surfaces… I thought I’d started to discern them – patterns, flows, relationships.'

This is obviously art that is more concerned with its conceptual engagement than its aesthetic. There is a poverty of beauty in these images of north Belfast. What are the artists trying to say here? That parts of Belfast – like all cities – are ugly and uninspiring? That the grey wash of motorways and dull roads are symbolic of a broader psychosocial malaise? That the impact of the north’s fractious history is perennial post-Troubles stress disorder, deprivation, a ground-down population, art exhibitions that forever brood over old wounds and cultural vacuum rather than making it new?

Several leaflets accompanying the exhibition hold some clues on the vague, and one might say conflated, intellectual import of all this. Jewesbury’s film comes with a large photographic print of a block of flats, on the back of which are extracts from an academic study on the 'conventional problems associated with participant observation'.

It addresses the 'personal equation' – how what we see is overwhelmingly shaped by our own biases, past experiences and interests. We digest realities according to our own ideological conditioning, until, perhaps, the fact that we 'cried twice, made love fifteen times and changed [our] socks once a week' may all be said to shape how we perceive and analyse a particular situation.

Very good, but how does this aid our understanding of this tedious walk down the New Lodge? It could be that we look at Belfast less positively than we might, because we are conditioned by ‘insider’ psychology to think of it, not as a place of potential and culture, but as a site of conflict and boredom, vandalism and contentious marches, bigotry and terrorism. (And goodness knows, this year’s Twelfth gave us plenty about Belfast to lament.)

But if we see only greyness and motorways, roundabouts and dead-end streets, isn’t this in part a symptom of our own mindset, of limited imaginations? We might look at the New Lodge differently depending on where we are from, for example. The republican murals and Sinn Fein election posters may make us feel at home or uneasy. Notions of class will have an affect. Some of us might be buoyed up by the view of the children playing, of people going about their lives with purpose, ignoring the political murals and less than salubrious surroundings.

In the context of such debates about observation, Jewesbury’s film seems like a hermeneutic exercise, giving you a road to map out according to your own psychogeography. What kind of Belfast do you see, a concrete backwater or a city on the cusp of something new, something better? The mood of this exhibition suggests that Jewesbury and O’Beirn veer towards the former perspective, but at least there is an awareness here of the contingency of interpretation.

Questions about Northern Ireland’s ability to shake off the burden of the past return obsessively in local art. So much so that one begins to wonder if full cultural recovery can ever be granted to a society so intent on staring gloomily backwards. This exhibition does little to break this retrogressive mould.

Daniel Jewesbury and Aisling O’Beirn runs at the Belfast Exposed Gallery until August 13. For more information visit www.belfastexposed.org.